Eye on Image-Making: Five Ways to Tell if a Photographer Is Really in Business

What does it mean to be in business? When I lived in San Francisco, I worked as a corporate and editorial photographer and also taught a course in business practices for photographers. As a dedicated member of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), I felt it was appropriate to practice what I preached and visa versa.

The course I taught—which is still being taught at City College of San Francisco—covered all aspects of starting and operating a small business. We learned about financial planning, time management, marketing, self-promotion, advertising, bidding and estimating, copyright and contracts, negotiating with clients, and determining profitability.

As their final project, the students submitted a written business plan. Many professional photographers I talked to during that time said they wished they had had the opportunity to take such a course.

What It Means to Be in Business

I just learned that I will again be teaching this type of course here at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications. This course will be aimed at a range of students—those wanting to be photographers, videographers, graphic designers, Web designers, and multimedia producers. The theme of the course will be how to set up and run a successful small business as a creative professional.

Planning to teach this course in the fall got me thinking about what it means to be in business. None of the professions I’ve mentioned requires a license or even a formal university degree. Anyone with a camera and a computer can call herself a photographer or a Web designer.

I am not in favor of licensing requirements for creative professionals. But this lack of formality does present a challenge for those wishing to hire independent creative professionals: how do you know if the person you are about to hire is really in business?

If you are a photo editor or an art director, you are probably used to dealing with a wide range of vendors and suppliers. For example, you get phone service from the phone company, office supplies from a retailer or online, and printing from a printer.

These types of vendors and suppliers are clearly in business. They have a place of business, a business license, a business phone and Yellow Pages listing, a Web site, and business insurance. If they have employees, they pay them through payroll and withhold taxes; they also pay unemployment and disability insurance and have a workers-comp plan.

These vendors and suppliers may be set up as corporations, partnerships, or sole proprietorships—but whatever the structure, they file the appropriate business-tax forms and pay the required business taxes, including sales tax. If they fail to do any of these things, they probably won’t be in business long.

Five Questions to Ask an Independent Creative Professional

When it comes to hiring independent creative professionals, however, you as a photo editor or art director may not have such a clear picture of your prospective supplier’s business status.

Primary in your mind may be this question: can this person do the job I need at a price I can afford? All the other issues—business license, taxes, insurance, etc.—may not seem relevant. But they are, and here are five questions to ask an independent creative professional with whom you are considering working.

1. How long have you been in business?

Although years spent toiling away are no guarantee of creative excellence, a business that is successful over the long term is probably doing many things right: providing great customer service, managing cash flow and profitability, utilizing a smart marketing and self-promotion strategy, and adapting to changes in client needs and technology. Doesn’t this sound like the type of creative professional you want to have as a resource?

2. Do you have a place of business, a business license, a business phone and Yellow Pages listing, and a Web site?

These things announce to the world that, yes, I am in business, just like the other vendors and suppliers with whom a photo editor or art director routinely does business.

I remember getting a call years ago—pre-Internet days—from Hugh Ackroyd, a marvelous photographer and friend in Portland, Oregon. “David,” he said, “I tried to look you up but didn’t see your Yellow Pages listing.” Hugh was a long-time ASMP member, and this was his gentle way of telling me that it was time to get serious about being in business.

Again, having these things is no guarantee of the quality of work you will receive—that’s why you review portfolios. But this type of screening will tend to weed out hobbyists, semiprofessionals, and those attempting to fly under the radar and do business in a less-than-professional way.

3. Do you carry business insurance?

This is often a requirement when a government agency hires an independent contractor, but it is often overlooked by photo editors and art directors. When I worked in San Francisco, I carried a standard business-insurance policy with $1 million in liability insurance. On every estimate I sent out, I added a small line-item expense called “Insurance.”

This was sometimes questioned, at which point I would explain that should something happen during the shoot (light stand topples, smashes priceless Ming vase), we would be covered. Note the “we.” In today’s litigious society, I’ll bet the owner of said Ming vase would sue everyone even remotely connected with the shoot, including, of course, the client who hired me. Don’t you want to be in good hands?

4. Do you have employees or use assistants?

If so, do you withhold taxes and insurance from their paychecks and carry workers-comp insurance? When I look back over the commercial photography I have done, most of the best images come from shoots on which I worked with an assistant. Four eyes are better than two, and using an assistant freed me up to interact with the subject rather than fuss with equipment. The best assistants are problem solvers and anticipate what you are going to need before you realize you need it.

From the time I first started using assistants, I either ran their checks through a payroll service or processed them myself using QuickBooks. These methods withheld the proper taxes and made contributions to the assistant’s unemployment insurance. I also bought a workers-comp insurance policy through the California State Compensation Insurance Fund, so my assistant would be covered in the event of an on-the-job accident.

I knew many photographers who neglected to take these steps and instead treated their assistants as independent contractors. But it took only a few horror stories—unemployment claims made against photographers by former assistants, or the California Economic Development Department dunning photographers for taxes they failed to withhold—to convince me to play by the rules.

If you are a photo editor or art director, don’t you want to work with people who play by the rules?

5. Will you provide me with a written estimate that clearly shows all the fees and expenses (subject to a standard 10-percent variance) that I will be charged if I decide to use your services?

Back in the day, the big question was “What is your day rate?” If you quoted a figure, the client would likely write it down next to your name, and there it would be—forever. Whereas the day rate was firmly established in the editorial market, many photographers doing corporate and advertising work felt that “creative fee” was a more descriptive and realistic term.

If you, as a photo editor or art director, are getting multiple estimates, make sure you are comparing apples with apples. That’s why many photographers use standard business forms, such as those recommended by ASMP, for estimating and job confirmation, delivery of final product, and model releases. It is standard business practice to separate fees and expenses, and to mark up most expenses—we buy wholesale and sell retail.

If the independent creative professional creates an estimate for you in this way, you’ll see everything as a line item and also the total cost of the job. After all, that’s what you’re interested in, no?

I have tried to explain why photo editors and art directors need to be as concerned about the business status of the people they are considering working with as they are about their creative excellence. The success of your magazine or ad agency depends on having a stable, reliable pool of creative professionals to call on at a moment’s notice.

The next time you are getting ready to hire an independent creative professional, ask yourself, “Is this person really in business?”

4 Responses to “Eye on Image-Making: Five Ways to Tell if a Photographer Is Really in Business”

  1. Yellow page listing? In 2010? When is the last time anyone looked in the Yellow page, really?

  2. I'd question that Yellow Pages entry too. In the two or three years I had a Yellow Pages listing, the only responses that came my way regularly were, "Do you do passport photos?" and one industrial assignment that involved crawling into the inside of a boiler to photograph corrosion (I took the job...but did not enjoy it).

    Anyone looking ofr a creative photographer would never look to the Yellow Pages, even before the days of the Internet.

  3. I too tried using the yellow pages in 2009 to stimulate my one year old legally operated photo business. (I have been getting paid for photographic services going back to 1995) I had less than fifteen calls from that ad and only one paying client. I did field dozens of calls from salespeople, but none of them wanted to give me money...
    Many of my photographer friends asked me why I waisted my money on a yellow page ad.

  4. Yellow pages? Not sure people spend money on that anymore.

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